Archive for September 2011

John Bergsma and Papal Infallibilty, part 3

September 6, 2011

In his third post, Dr. Bergsma argues that conciliar infallibility is not enough “to preserve the unity of the Church, and to transmit the faith with certitude to the common believer” – one needs Papal infallibility, too.

Immediately I must again ask: how come the unity of the Church was preserved before 1870, was the faith never transmitted with certitude in the first millennium of Christianity? The Catholic response is of course that the truth of papal infallibility was there all the time, even though it was defined only in 1870.

Well, the evidence, then. Not for the primacy of Rome or Peter, but for the fact that Christians believed all throughout history that the Bishop of Rome can define new dogmas by himself and make them binding upon all the faithful. That he has the charism of infallibility, not just truth. And if they didn’t believe it, how does the Roman Church in 1870 have the right to demand such belief?

Bergsma’s argument

Dr. Bergsma argues that Papal Infallibility is needed because the “councils themselves sometimes need clarification”. How about the Papal stamentents, then? Are they clearer than the Councils? (Clearer than the Rule of Faith?) Why was there a need to inquire whether JP2 infallibly denied women orders? Who clarified that? The CDF, whose documents are authoritative, but not super-infallible.

There we go. It is an endless chain when you start with the “you need an infallible interpreter” argument. You need an interpreter of that interpreter, too, but you end up with a fallible interpreter of an infallible interpreter at the end. So why couldn’t you just be content with your fallible understanding of the infallible Gospel/Apostolic Faith?

What is infallible, anyway?

A second problem I see with Bergsma’s main argument is that papal confirmations of ecumenical councils do not qualify for infallible statements, anyway. According to Pastor aeternus, the Pope can infallibly define as revealed by God and binding on all a matter of faith or morals. There are no such definitions from Popes after each council.

This is connected with the problem of recognizing infallible statements. There is no infallible list of them, some think there’s only one (the Assumption), some think two (the Immaculate Conception), some say seven (even there only two are linked with ecumenical councils). Jesuit Garth Hallett has thus argued “the dogma seems to have no practical use and to have succumbed to the sense that it is irrelevant”.

The Living Voice

Finally, Dr. Bergsma argues that Papal Infallibility is needed (in addition to the infallibility of Scripture and Ecumenical Councils) because the Pope is always a living voice that can interpret and explain itself. Again, how many times has this happened infallibly? Why is infallibility needed for this?

The Pope can be a living voice and an authoritative teacher of truth without the dogma of infallibility. In fact, Bergsma confuses freedom from error with infallibility several times in his article. For instance, “God has to transmit to us the saving truth free from error (that is, infallibly)”. Freedom from error means there is no factual mistake, infallibility means there can never be any mistake.

God can easily transmit the saving truth to us free from error, in the Gospel, the Scriptures, the Tradition, the preaching and teaching of the Pope. And he does. But this does not have to mean the Popes and Councils can never err in their dogmatic statements. In fact, as I mentioned before, all of Vatican II and post-conciliar Catholic theology by and large assume they have.

John Bergsma on Papal Infallibility, part 2

September 6, 2011

This is a response to the second part of Dr. John Bergsma’s arguments for Papal Infallibility. In his post he links Papal Infallibility with ecclesial infallibility, which he derived from his overly simplistic “either the Church or the individual Christian” argument.

Bergsma and conciliar infallibility

Bergsma argues that if the Church is infallible, the voice of the Church should be at least sometimes indentified with its ministers or representatives. Bergsma then discredits individual Christians, Pastors, Bishops, local councils, for they have all erred and become heretical at some point.

But he stops at ecumenical councils and says the Church is not infallible at all if it is not infallible at this level, for what could be higher than an ecumenical council? If the Councils aren’t infallible, it’s back to every individual Christian again.


This reasoning contains a handful of problems. First, strictly speaking, a Catholic would have to say the Pope is higher than an Ecumenical Council, so why should Councils in themselves be infallible. In fact, later Bergsma will argue the Pope is needed to decide which Councils are ecumenical in the first place. So it all comes down to the infallibility of the Pope.

Second, why say local councils and Bishops have erred, but ecumenical councils haven’t? Erred by what standard? According to millions of Christians, Ecumenical Councils have erred, too. It’s begging the question to appeal to an infallible Pope here.

Vatican II and the Gospel

Vatican II implicitly declared earlier Councils to have erred by disagreeing with their dogmatic theology. If you want to try to harmonize V2 with all earlier Councils and dogmas, you might as well claim to harmonize all statements made by all individual Bishops and local Councils.

Dr. Bergsma calls his position minimalistic. Indeed, I might ask, was the voice of the Church never identified with any of its ministers during the years 100-324? This is ridiculous. The voice of the Church is heard whenever the Gospel is preached and the Apostolic Faith taught. This is precisely what I meant by saying that dogmatic considerations almost always forget about the Gospel.

John Bergsma on Papal Infallibility, part 1

September 6, 2011

On the Sacred Page blog, John Bergsma wrote a three part series of articles on Papal infallibility in response to some remarks I made in the comments section of his earlier post on the papacy as such. In this post I would like to critique Bergsma’s presentation, as it is representative of many Catholic presentations of the dogma.

In the comments I had lamented the fact that papal infallibility (as well as other late dogmas) is almost always considered apart from the saving power of the Gospel, as if the Gospel did not save (see Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:2) or even exist. Unfortunately, Dr. Bergsma did precisely the same in his articles, although he had recognized my comment.

Where do we start?

I think the biggest problem with Bergsma’s presentation is its erroneous starting point. He starts from the question: “Who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?” I used to look at it this way too, until I started going to the true sources of the faith, the inspired Apostles and their disciples who handed on the apostolic Tradition.

Bergsma’s starting point might be appealing to a naive Fundamentalist who thinks the Bible fell down from Heaven as a timeless collection of truths that we now need to sit down and correctly understand. A Catholic (equally naive and Fundamentalist) can say hey, God came down from Heaven to establish a Church to interpret the Bible for you.

The Gospel and the Rule

But this is not how it went at all. As Dr. Bergsma well knows, Christianity started with the resurrection of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. From Pentecost on, the Apostles were preaching the salvific Gospel. They were not giving out Bibles and issuing infallible interpretations.

Of course, people soon started to mix truth with error and the Apostles and their followers needed to react. But here’s the deal: the answer was much more simple than an infallible Magisterium or Pope, it was the rule of faith, the faith received from the Apostles.

For Irenaeus, the rule of faith served as the key to faithful Bible interpretation. Irenaeus said there were many puzzles to be solved in the Bible, and each Bishop could try to interpret them according to the wisdom given him (i.e. he did not know of any infallible instance for easy answers). But what was clear was the Apostolic Faith. To this faith no one dares to add anything.

Fallible infallibility

Dr. Bergsma argues there are only two possible final arbiters: The Church or every individual Christian. He opts for the Church, later explaining this to mean Ecumenical Councils and the Pope. But these are not the only options, nor is this the answer of the early Church. The infallible arbiter is the Rule, whose content is by and large identical with the Apostles’ Creed.

This Rule is faithfully proclaimed in the Church, but each individual can understand it and even judge presbyters and bishops who deviate from it. The Church’s job is to hand on the Faith, not to add to it. The Apostolic Rule does not contain any mention of any infallible Magisterium or Pope. Such an addition is by definition fallible, since there is no previous infallibility to guarantee its truth.

Scripture and Tradition

If Jesus gave the Councils and Popes dogmatic infallibility, it would be a different story. Bergsma does what Catholics often do: cite Mt 16 and 18 as well as John 16, but forgetting the question they otherwise ask their Protestant friends: is this how the early Christians understood it? Is there an interpretive tradition supporting this reading?

There is no such thing, nor do the texts in context say anything about dogmatic conciliar or papal definitions. They talk about the fact that the Church is the place of communion with God, the forgiveness of sins, and that the Holy Spirit will always dwell with the followers of Jesus.